Thursday, December 17, 2009

RE: Open Reply to Thomas Mann

A continuation from Autocat

Ted P Gemberling wrote:

I think there is little reason to fear that librarians in North America and elsewhere in the developed world will fail to keep up with change. They seem pretty obsessive about that. There's nothing you hear more often at library conferences than "the only constant is change." Every now and then, we need someone like Thomas Mann to speak up about the enduring values of our profession.

Please realize that I am not saying that individual librarians are not keeping up; it's just the reality of the situation for libraries as a whole: the tasks of selection and organization, and libraries themselves that are not keeping up (I am leaving out description, maintenance, conservation, reference, and other library tasks here). Where do we see libraries in the forefront of information discovery? True, libraries are putting massive numbers of scanned books online... mainly through Google Books! Many wonderful manuscript collections have been placed online, oral histories, statistics, publications from international organizations and think tanks. But almost the only way to access them is through Google and Yahoo. Only now are libraries really beginning to deal with Web2.0 possibilities. Web2.0 is premised on sharing information and metadata, while libraries have done relatively little in these areas.

But I am not finding fault, merely describing the situation as I see it. These are not simple matters, and change has always been very, very slow in the library world. Now that the rest of the information world is changing much faster than ever before, changes in libraries must also happen much faster, otherwise we will be doomed to fall farther and farther behind. I understand that change is difficult to enact in highly bureaucratized environments where there must be this thing called "consensus," and it is not easy to broaden the gaze of the selectors, catalogers, other librarians and, let's not forget administrators, from looking only *inside* the library to include more fully what is *outside* the library. That is a basic change in world-view. The question: How much work do you do to catalog a freely-accessible item on the web that might go away or change radically tomorrow? I can understand concluding: very little, but this essentially ignores the directions our patrons are going. It is difficult to reach agreement on something like this.

Yet, that is exactly the beauty of Web2.0 tools: you don't need consensus. Just put your "stuff" up in a format that can be shared, while you always keep in mind that everything you create is a work in progress. Therefore, the focus should not be on creating "finished products" but much more on making something better than what you have today. Next week, you will make something better than you are making now, but that still doesn't mean that you shouldn't make the improvements now, today because in a year, you may have something entirely new. Maybe you can even let your patrons take over some things. Today's public can handle change and expect to see it.

Finally, I pointed out in my open reply that Thomas Mann's essay is an excellent statement for the values of traditional librarianship.

I wanted to comment on a couple of things you said in your last message:

"Just as "no man is an island," no library collection can be seen as separate, either. This makes a huge difference in the work of every single librarian, and sadly, lowers the value of the traditional catalog as well.
Somehow the catalog must change to find web materials more uniformly. This is a huge undertaking and, I think, demands other methods. The materials on the shelves of our libraries cannot be considered separately from materials on the web. They are all of equal worth and that means reference librarians will be expected to know (and are expected to know right now) the materials on the web just as well as they know the materials on their shelves, but there are no tools for the web that are in any way comparable as those we have for printed materials."

I believe in your Open Reply you spoke of the internet as a library. But I think that's like calling television a library. On both the Net and television there's lots that is of value, but I wouldn't call them libraries. A library is a collection of resources that have been selected and organized because they've been recognized as having enduring value. It's not just a conglomeration of accessible things. So it's questionable that any real catalog can or should find web materials "uniformly." No one needs to say there are valuable things on the Web as well as television. The statement of Mann's that you responded to is a Web document.

But I think Mann would agree that no library is an "island" in a total sense. But islands can mean a lot sometimes. This reminds me of a recent TV documentary on Christopher Columbus. Columbus and his crew were desperate to find an island when they made their first trans-Atlantic voyage. It was terrifying to be out on the open sea, and they almost turned back. Of course we know they completely misinterpreted the islands they did find. Perhaps we can extend the analogy a little and say that, because of its vastness and comprehensiveness, the Library of Congress is like one of those big islands we call "continents." At times, looking for things on the unorganized Web seems rather like embarking on a voyage on the open sea and clinging to every little bit of land one finds. If you have a map like the LC catalog, you might have a better chance of finding your way to the continent you're looking for.

You have hit on a point mentioned in my open reply, but I'll put it in different terms. I view the web as a huge, growing library that is in a state of near chaos. That means it needs at the minimum, selection and organization for retrieval. Either we leave this to the Googlies or try to get some level of control over it ourselves. It has been predicted that within 10 or 20 years, we will be able to carry the equivalent of the entire LC collection in our pocket and we seem to be on target. Already, I have seen that there are 250GB flash drives! When an Ipod for books appears (and it may be here already) these developments will have huge ramifications for us. It is regrettable, but in such a world, the materials not digitized will in effect, simply not exist. The reason will be that there will be plenty of easily accessible items to keep practically everybody completely occupied. This has happened before, when printed books first came out. Before the printed book, manuscripts were the only choice, which was a real pain, and people preferred the ease of printed books and it turned out that if a manuscript was not published, practically no one paid it any attention.

It is my concern and deeply held belief that we concentrate on these "islands" to our own peril. Sure, these islands will continue to be needed, but they will become less and less important to the lives of the vast majority of society. Perhaps the great islands will be the last to go, but they will still be left behind. The way to save them is to digitize them so that they will be used and thereby gain in importance, perhaps more than ever before. For instance, this happened with JSTOR which made many older journals far more accessible and useful today than their printed versions ever were.

As I concluded in my open reply: it is time to move on. I'll add though: If we do it right, the new world can be a great one.

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